Learning to respect other people’s beliefs is often the catalyst which forces you to re-examine your own. It’s only after you have stepped outside of your inherited worldview, and experienced a differing worldview, can you truly begin to see it for what it is. This can be a daunting task, because you may come to discover that everything you thought you knew was merely an illusion.
A Lesson Learned in Japan
I arrived in Japan on September of 2003. It was my first time to Japan–and it would be my adopted home for one full year–while I studied Japanese language at Kumamoto Gakuen University.
Before I explain my crisis of faith however, I have to explain something equally as important. I have to explain how culture shock affected my worldview.
You see, you can’t change your mind about your beliefs until those beliefs are challenged. Whether they are culturally derived beliefs, religious beliefs, or philosophical in nature–until you call them into question–your belief is naive.
Culture shock has a way of showing you that what you thought was the norm–is not necessarily true once you leave the comfort zone of your own cultural worldview. Culture shock basically is the experience of a foreign, or alien, culture to your own. One in which the norms are so entirely different–that you are shocked by the strangeness and dissimilarity of them.
Neither worldview is right or wrong. They are just different. But because many people are only accustomed to their own worldview–their first reaction upon encountering a different worldview is to classify it as “incorrect.” Therefore culture shock is necessary if you wish to get over your preconceptions and begin to learn to see things in a different light. Those who can’t get over their initial culture shock usually return home–and only have negative impressions of the alien worldview they encountered. They refuse to open their minds–so the culture shock sends them reeling back–and they only close their minds even tighter.
Perhaps an example would help to illustrate what would become the most important lesson I ever learned.
In Japan they have public bath houses called onsen. The onsen is like a fancy spa fed by natural hot springs. Japan is littered with these hot springs because it is a volcanic island. Onsen are everywhere!
This availability of hot water bath houses all over the country has given the Japanese a 3,000 year old custom of communal bathing.
My first onsen experience was rather traumatic for me. It was my first major culture shock in Japan. Some roommates from the International dorm were headed out to the onsen one evening and I decided to accompany them. I had packed my swimsuit, and was excited to being going to the famous Japanese onsen!
Upon arriving we went into the changing room, and too my surprise it was full of naked people! Everyone was in their birthday suits! I instantly became embarrassed at the realization that I would have to be naked in front of all these people. What’s more, I was the only white person–so it was the first time I felt like a minority–with everyone intensely watching me.
At first I worried about my Christian values–my sense of propriety was being put to the test–because I was raised under the Christian notion that you did not share “yourself” with anyone–ever–before your wedding night. I’m not talking about sex here–I am talking about the personal aspect of ones body–which Christianity teaches is a temple of God. I knew I was supposed to keep the temple sacred, and tearing off the curtains and revealing the inner sanctum of the holy of holies just didn’t seem to be keeping with conventional Christian decorum and decency.
I didn’t know if taking a bath with another person, in the nude, counted as a form of misconduct–or at the very least a risque and promiscuous deed. On top of these concerns, my Western social conventions were telling me it was just plain weird to be getting naked with other people–it didn’t fit with the Christian value of modesty. In America, such an act would be viewed as taboo–even grotesque. Imagine the summer swimming pool full of naked children and adults. It’s a shocking thought… because we would be alarmed to see other people’s naked bodies–especially those of children and elderly people.
But that sort of thinking never even enters the mindset of the Japanese. Stripping bare and bathing is not about the temptation of flesh, but rather, the thought is to clean the dirt from that flesh–from your head to your toes.
Stripping down was a humbling experience. But once I got in the pool, some older Japanese gentlemen started chatting with me. They wanted to know where I was from, why I had come to Japan, and afterward they even bought me a cold drink from the vending machine. All in all, the traumatic experience turned out to be a memorable one.
Crisis of Faith
Okay, so here is the sort of Christian I was, because it was who I was, it is how I thought:
“Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?” (2 Corinthians 6:14-15, King James Version)
I believed it when the Bible said not to marry anyone outside of the faith. I believed it would be a sin to do so. I believe it would ruin my relationship with Christ.
Then I met this wonderful, intelligent, cultured Japanese woman named Sayaka.
My whole life I had been raised in a Church which taught that if I married a non-Christian, such as a Buddhist, I’d likely be corrupted by her ungodliness, be tempted to sin, and fall back out of grace only to end up in hell. If I managed to maintain my faith–I was guaranteed that I would be miserable, that my marriage would be unhappy, and that I would surely lose my wife after death–as she would be destined to suffer in hell and I would be whisked away to heaven to be with God. And in my piety I believed it.
After meeting Sayaka, and falling deeply in love with her, suddenly an eternity in hell seemed like a risk worth taking.
Like many fundamentalist Christians, I was raised on entirely conservative values, where my Pastor denounced premarital sex and called it lust and a temptation of the flesh, living together before marriage was shunned, and to even talk about one’s sexual identity was taboo. Abortion was seen as evil and homosexuality was a grotesque perversion of human morality. And I believed it all.
It was my religion. My religious beliefs were all I knew. There was nothing to challenge them. Until, that is, I met Sayaka.
She showed me there is more to people than unfounded stereotypes. She opened my eyes to other ways of thinking and taught me compassion and empathy for other people–no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation or background.
Suddenly, nothing my faith held as conventional seemed to make sense anymore. It was telling me I couldn’t love the woman of my dreams because she was an outside force tempting me away from my faith. My form of Christianity taught that I couldn’t be with her, that if I chose to love this woman that I was choosing her over God–and betraying my convictions in the process.
My fundamental outlook wasn’t compatible with a more multicultural and open-minded view of interracial relationships. I believed God was all loving, but only of his chosen flock. If she wasn’t a true Christian, then I’d be jeopardizing my very salvation by allowing myself to be led astray. If she couldn’t be convinced of the truth of Christianity–then I was risking both our chances at salvation.You see, according to my Christian upbringing, only Christian behavior and thinking was morally correct in my eyes–until culture shock changed all that. Culture shock gave me the tools to step outside my worldview and re-examine my beliefs.
Finally, I had found someone who I loved and who loved me back. That’s not something I wanted to give up. Who would?
Indeed, the more I learned from Sayaka about love, the more I began to see that the love and compassion of my faith was grotesquely inferior by comparison. I had to seriously start questioning my faith and what it taught.
Needless to say, I didn’t want to be a lonely bigot preaching about the power of God’s love but know nothing about real love. When it came to devotion to my faith, or devotion to my future wife, I chose my wife over the religious ideology.
It wasn’t easy to do. But it was necessary. Like the culture shock I experienced at the onsen where I was forced to change my preconceived notions of bath etiquette, I also had to change my preconceived notions of love. It was all part of growing–a part of learning to open my mind to the world a little bit more. I was in the process of expanding my worldview. Realizing this only helped me to see that Christianity only hindered my worldview by limiting it to Christian rectitude–anything else, that is to say anything different, was destined to be wrong.
Naturally, I realized I had to make a choice. A difficult one at that. Either I could keep believing in Christianity, because it was all I knew—It’s what I was taught—or I could go back to square one and re-educate myself, find a new belief system–maybe even a better one–and become something new.
Ultimately, three events happened during the crisis of my faith. My beliefs, and my worldview, were challenged head on. Overcoming my initial culture shock taught me the critical skills required in order to re-evaluate my personal beliefs. And love changed me–when it showed me that my Christian ideals could, in fact, be inferior to non-Christian ideals. If I could be wrong about Christianity, I wondered, then what else might I be wrong about? It was the perfect blend of intellectual and emotional turmoil which lead to my crisis of faith and eventually my current skepticism.
Coming to Japan and meeting Sayaka was the catalyst that caused me to go back and re-evaluate my life–everything from who I was as a person, to what I believed, to who I wanted to become. But even with all the change going on in my life, I still wasn’t fully willing (or ready) to relinquish my Christianity.
[In the *final* installment, Part 5: Deconversion, I will talk about the loss of faith.]